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After hearing about Damnation, a game heavily steeped in steampunk and the old west, nearly a year ago, I felt a strange compulsion wash over me like a fever. “What,” I asked myself. “Could be better than a steampunk western?” As it turns out, plenty, but I didn’t know that when I first sat down to play Codemaster’s latest effort, Damnation.
Set in an alternate history of the United States of America, Damnation follows a man named Rourke and a rowdy band of direct-to-video rejects as they try to stop the man known as Prescott from taking over the country. Along the way, you’ll cross paths with robot assassins, crazed cannibals, cyborg women, and just about every other stereotypical convention you can think of. It wouldn’t be so bad if any of the characters were particularly interesting, but all of them are so over the top that it’s nearly impossible to take the story or characterization seriously at all. Rourke is a troubled man looking for his missing fiancée. Yakecan, the team’s mystical healer, is a lethal combination of a supermodel body and the attitude of Vasquez from Aliens. Zagato is the boastful South American gunslinger ripped straight from the set of Three Amigos. The main villain, Prescott, channels a Christopher Walken impersonator by way of View to a Kill. By the time you spend five minutes with these people, you actually hope they get killed off in the next scene. Like any game with faults, something like a poor story could be overlooked if the gameplay was memorable. Sadly, that’s anything but the case with this game.
Damnation was billed as a third-person shooter that was all about verticality. Levels are designed with a heavy focus on upward mobility, and the game’s focus on platforming is apparent from the get go. The level design in Damnation is just about the only thing the game has going for it. Blue Omega actually delivered some impressively large landscapes with some decent variation for gamers to scale. Sadly, what skills the developer has in design acumen, they lack in just about every other aspect of gameplay. Gunplay in Damnation is a mess. If you weren’t completely frustrated by the fact that your targeting reticule never quite moves to the spot you want it to, your experience will be hampered by the fact that it takes an unseemly amount of ammunition to take down any one enemy. Sure, you’ll occasionally get lucky and manage a headshot or two, but the quick kill is far from the norm. Don’t even get me started on the reload function being mapped to a click of the left analog stick.
The actual act of getting Rourke around the level is one of the more tedious aspects of the game. What should be a fun, new way to play a shooter quickly becomes the bane of your existence. Imprecise controls, due mostly to poor animations, lead to your character never quite going where you want him to, unless they’re magnetized to one of the climbing surfaces. Your teammates will often warp ahead of you to where you’re supposed to be, so since there’s no map at any point in the game, all you have to do is try and find your partners with the mother of useless gameplay mechanics, Spirit Vision. Using some sort of Native American mumbo jumbo, Rourke is able to concentrate really hard and spot where enemies are standing from any point of the board. Of course, none of it means anything because all you see are heat signatures of the bodies, not the level layout. An enemy could literally be around the corner or way off in the distance, and you can’t tell the difference when in Spirit Vision. Your pals show up as blue ghosts, so if you ever get turned around on a level, just look for where they abandoned you to go hang out. There are also instances where you’ll use a motorcycle. They’re not exciting in the least.
To say Damnation is an ugly game does a great disservice to all the ugly games in the world. The game’s textures are muddy, the color palette is dull, and the character models are insulting by next-gen standards. There may be a solid amount of detail on the main characters, but that doesn’t mean they look good. The enemies you’ll encounter have just the faintest hints of detailing, but the main difference between all of them appears to be what color they are and what weapon they’re carrying. Animations seem to be missing a few frames across the board, and the physics of the game are a joke. You’ll notice how bad those two facets get when you’re engaged in a firefight with more than a few bad guys. Explosions turn people to chunks instantly. There’s no in between. Characters don’t have any weight to them. You’ll feel more like you’re driving a tank that looks like a person than you will feel like you’re actually in control of a virtual human being. The less I talk about the voiceover the less angry I’m liable to get, so just keep that in mind. What little score there is reminds me more of any low budget television movie than it does provide any semblance of identity to this game.
Multiplayer comes in two varieties: co-op and competitive. You can play the game with a friend on the same console or online, but I wouldn’t recommend doing either. Glitches like your partner magically appearing on the back of the motorcycle as you drive off without them become even more painful when playing with a competent human player. The co-op may be mildly amusing for the few laughs you’ll get out of the terrible gameplay, but the fun dies quickly as you realize you just wasted half-an-hour of your life to play this insipid game. The online competitive modes include Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, and Team Deathmatch. That’s about all I can tell you about the online because I couldn’t find a single game to join. Strangely, the offline competitive modes are limited to Deathmatch and King of the Hill, and can only be played one on one. Like the co-op, it’s entertaining for a few minutes, but once you kill one another two or three times, you’re ready to move on to a game with more substance.
I really wanted Damnation to be good. It had all kinds of potential when the only information about the game was the screenshots. After playing it for a few days, I’m sad to say that not only did the game not live up to what it could have been, it actually lowered the bar for any other steampunk western that follows; though I can’t see too many developers jumping at the chance to outdo this game. The one positive I can take away from my experience is that Damnation has made me more excited for Red Dead Redemption, because at least with Rockstar, there’s a chance the game won’t suck this hard.